Hiring & Retention: Finders, keepers

June 11, 2015 -  By

Strategies LM150 firms are using to up their employment game.

iS19332044people-magnify-redFinding and keeping good people are fundamental to success for any business, but in the landscape industry, companies are discovering these to be increasingly difficult tasks.

We spoke to several LM150 business owners who’ve been dealing with these challenges and are employing a variety of solutions.

One challenge landscape business owners say they face when hiring is the fact that the industry is labor-intensive.

“Most people these days do not want a labor-intensive job,” says Alan Hales, operations manager for LandCare Innovations in Charlotte, N.C., a primarily design/build company that ranks No. 145 on this year’s list. “If you stick with it, you can make a good living in this industry by working your way up through a company. But a lot of people don’t get that far because they don’t want to put in the labor. To become a crew leader you need to stick around for several years, and that often doesn’t happen.”

Lebo Newman, owner of Reno, Nev.-based Signature Landscapes, which is No. 125 on the LM150 list, says horticulture schools aren’t producing the same kind of qualified manpower that they once did. Newman also owns Napa, Calif.-based Coast Landscape Management, No. 146.

“There are a lot less people coming out of horticulture school,” Newman says. “The younger generation appears to want computer jobs and office jobs. As a result, the trades are having a much harder time attracting people. That’s true of all trades—roofing, plumbing, electric. It seems as though going into a trade job isn’t looked at as successful anymore, and we have to work on ways to change that if we want to attract new people.”

Unfortunately, the difficulty in finding workers can hinder growth. “We also want to expand, but that’s very hard to do without adequate labor force,” Hales says. “You can buy all the trucks and trailers you want, but if you don’t have the crew to put in them, you’re out of luck. We do feel like we would have grown even more than we did had we not faced these labor concerns.”

LandCare grew about 36 percent in 2014, and expects to grow another 25 percent next year, but that may not happen without the workers it needs. The company has had to pay for a lot of overtime hours, Hales says.

Matt White, owner and president of Caretaker Landscape & Tree Management in Gilbert, Ariz., has faced a similar challenge. He says the company, No. 62 on the LM150 list, had an annual revenue of $23.6 million last year and grew nearly 66 percent over 2013. It’s had trouble keeping up from a labor perspective. Jobs have been coming in, but manpower isn’t available. The company expects to grow 10 percent in 2015.

How to hire

Qualified  employees, like this hardscape crew at LandCare Innovations, are hard to come by.

Qualified employees, like this hardscape crew at LandCare Innovations, are hard to come by.

The first step in finding good people is to search in the right places, and LM150 executives say you need to get creative with the search process.

“It used to be that you put an ad in the paper and everyone was knocking on your door,” Newman says. “Today we reach out every single way we can. We use social media, networks like Craigslist, we offer incentives to existing employees that help us recruit and we hang cards or Help Wanted ads everywhere—including the oddest places, if we think our demographic might be frequenting that establishment. We do our best to reach out and often even recruit from out of town. Basically we try a little of everything—except poaching. We would never poach an employee from another company.”

Newman says he’s been shocked by how gutsy other companies have been in trying to poach some of his employees. They’ll even do it on a job site. Fortunately, for the most part, the company’s family-based culture and fair pay have kept crew members from going elsewhere.

Hales also has seen a lot of employee poaching in his area. It’s something his company won’t do, he says.

“This industry is built on reputation,” Hales says. “We’re friendly with many of our competitors and would never steal crew from them. In return, we hope they won’t do it to us.”

Tom Canete, CEO of Canete Landscape and Canete Snow Management in Wayne, N.J., says hiring a headhunter has been a successful strategy for finding good people. The company is No. 132 on the LM150 list. The key is to find a headhunter who’s well-versed in the green industry, he says. But be prepared to pay.

“It’s not an inexpensive route to take,” says Canete, who serves as president of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association. “I’m currently using a headhunter for the second time and it will cost me a nice chunk of money. But it’s worth it if they find you the right person. With the right person, you can easily recoup that investment.”

Canete estimates headhunter fees to be 15 percent to 20 percent of the employee’s salary.

Retention solutions

The companies who’ve successfully retained good people all echo the same phrase: “company culture.” When it’s so difficult to find quality employees, once you find them you don’t let them go, White says.

“We do team-building events, get off-site together, have matching 401(k) programs—basically things that a lot of other landscape companies aren’t doing,” he says. “We feel that being an employee-focused company that treats its people well is critical to our success. It’s the reason people stay with us and want to make a long-term career out of this. You just need to show them the path they should follow to achieve the next opportunity and work their way up in the company.”

Newman agrees. He also focuses on building a strong company culture. Showing employees they have opportunities for long-term growth is key to retaining them, he says. Signature Landscape looks to promote from within whenever possible and the executive team takes time to motivate employees and show them the track they’re on, including what potential opportunities lay ahead.

At Caretaker Landscape & Tree Management, employees have many training  opportunities.

At Caretaker Landscape & Tree Management, employees have many training opportunities.

“We don’t struggle with retention,” Newman says. “If we do lose employees, it’s to other industries—rarely to a competitor—and that’s because we treat our people like family. We look at it like we’re providing for 160 families, not 160 employees. We have parties, rewards and other incentives. We have a river float coming up where everyone will enjoy the day on inner tubes. We have a big Christmas party and several picnics a year. Basically, we try to have a lot of fun and make employees feel valued, because they are.”

At LandCare Innovations, training and promotion opportunities are key to retention, Hales say, but pay is the biggest factor.
“Pay is what keeps people with you,” he says. “You need to build a company culture and offer opportunities for growth, but you also need to pay well.”

Canete agrees. Paying fairly is important, but he says paying weekly is something his employees also value.

“A lot of companies pay every two weeks but we pay weekly,” he says. “Some of our competitors may pay a little more, but a weekly check means something to our crews. They know they’re guaranteed to be paid each and every Friday.”

Canete also considers overtime a perk. “Sometimes it’s better to pay a crew that already knows what they’re doing for time-and-a-half than to bring in a whole new crew right in the middle of busy season,” he says. “Our employees also really appreciate those overtime opportunities.”

Another thing many employees appreciate is education, which in turn helps build their passion for the industry and their investment in your company, White says.

“We spend a lot of money putting people through training and getting certifications,” he says. “To us, education is one of our biggest differentiators from competitors.”

It can be difficult to take people off the job to receive training, White acknowledges. But he says his company made education a priority about 10 years ago.

“Since then, we’ve seen a huge change in our employees’ passion,” he says. “They have pride in their work and our company—and that’s a huge benefit to all of us.”

Quick tips

“Clarity is the key to maintaining a positive company culture as your organization grows. As soon as the organization begins to assume what’s happening or where the business is going, culture will eat strategy for lunch.”
—Jerry Schill, president/CEO, Schill Grounds Management, No. 147

“The H-2B visa program is definitely crucial to meeting our labor needs; however, it’s only a bandage on the bigger problem, which is cultivating homegrown candidates that value working with their hands, have a strong work ethic and a desire to create and maintain beautiful landscapes. Partnerships with apprentice programs are other avenues we are currently pursuing.”
—Amy Weldon, director of marketing/sales, Clean Scapes, No. 44

Illustration: ©istock.com/d3images; Photos: LandCare Innovations; istock.com/bluebird13; Caretaker Landscape & Tree Management

Payton is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

This article is tagged with , , and posted in June 2015, LM150

About the Author:

Payton is a freelance writer with eight years of experience writing about the landscape industry.

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